Review: A Number – Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

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First published in The Times, Tuesday April 11 2017

Four Stars

It is so rare to see revivals of the work of Caryl Churchill on Scottish stages that two productions in the space of a week feels like an embarrassment of riches. The prolific, versatile and endlessly experimental playwright’s two-hander Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, which implicitly explores the so-called “special relationship” between Britain and the United States through a conversation between male lovers, has recently completed a week-long run in the Circle Studio at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

A Number, meanwhile, which debuted at the Royal Court in 2002, looks a very different proposition, even if it focuses on an imbalanced relationship between two men. A dispute between a father, Salter (played here by Peter Forbes), and his son, Bernard (Brian Ferguson), may be an ancient proposition, but Churchill’s play is thoroughly dystopian in outlook. The Bernard we meet in the opening scene is in fact one of several clones created by his father to replace the son he lost in mysterious circumstances.

06. (L-R) Peter Forbes and Brian Ferguson in A Number. Photo credit-Aly Wight

Pic: Aly Wright

Over a handful of punchy scenes we switch between Salter’s encounters with various incarnations of Bernard as he guiltily attempts to explain and atone for his actions while also, shamefacedly, seeking to make financial capital out of the situation. The play is barely an hour in length, yet these spiky, disjointed conversations draw in everything from the perils of scientific progress to the nature-versus-nurture debate and the thorny business of leaving some kind of legacy or mark on the world: something that survives us.

 

Indeed, Churchill’s script is so dense that the play really requires more than one viewing to get to grips with its many concerns, some of which are explored with rigour while others are barely touched upon. Zinnie Harris’s production, staged as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, is so spare in its presentation yet proceeds at such a lick that it takes a moment to work out which version of Bernard we are witnessing in any given scene.

05. Brian Ferguson in A Number. Photo credit-Aly Wight

Pic: Aly Wright

For all Churchill’s dabbling in speculative themes, the play is most compelling in its exploration of the mysteries of individual identity and the vexed question of the degree to which we are made by our parents. The simplicity of the staging allows for an intense connection with a pair of fine performances.

Ferguson convincingly denotes differences between three of the sons, powerfully conveying Bernard 2’s slowly dawning horror at having the rug so brutally pulled out from under his sense of himself. Forbes, in lower key mode, conveys the numbed shock, confusion and shifty defensiveness of a man whose vanity and ambition has led to consequences beyond his control.

 

Box office: 0131 248 4848, to April 15

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